Amplifying the Voices of Young Women

Amplifying the Voices of Young Women

by Erin Busch
Founder of The Young Women Composers Camp

Ever since I can remember, I have been writing music. I premiered my first real composition, entitled “The Mysterious Island”, when I was eight years old. It was a piece for solo piano that was about three minutes long, and, upon later reflection, much of it was a blatant rip-off of “Under The Sea” from The Little Mermaid. With that being said, writing my own music felt like the most natural way to respond to the music that I was engaging with in my life, and I never thought of it as anything special or noteworthy – it was just something that I liked to do, and I was lucky enough to have parents and music teachers who encouraged me to keep doing it.

I continued to write pieces through middle school and high school here and there, and when the time came to start thinking about college and career, I knew right away that I wanted to continue to study music composition. I got more serious about composing then, and started to enter local competitions, hoping to meet other young composers like myself. But as I attended more and more of these events, I started to notice that I was consistently outnumbered by my male counterparts, and was oftentimes the only girl. This made me recognize, for the first time, a similar inequality that existed in my music education up until that point, despite going to a public school with a good music program and having taken private instrument lessons for many years. I knew basically nothing about female composers, past or present. I didn’t play any works by women in orchestra, where I was a cellist; I didn’t learn about them in my private lessons, and all of the examples used in my high school music theory classes were written by men.

I had heard the works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart – I had even played some music written by more contemporary composers like John Adams and Christopher Theofanidis – but I had never learned about a single woman composer. When I asked my music teachers about this inequity, none of them had any answers for me, and usually said that they had never thought about it. I began to get discouraged, and thought maybe music composition wasn’t really the right path for me. How could I be successful in a field that clearly didn’t value the works of women?

After some encouragement from my parents and teachers, I did still end up applying to composition programs, and I accepted an offer to study at Temple University in Philadelphia back in 2009. I was excited; this would be the first time I would study composition formally, and I knew that Temple had a great music program. I was also excited to meet other young composers, especially other female composers. I was disappointed to find out, once the year started, that I was the only girl in the entire undergraduate program, which was around 12 people back then. I remember distinctly discussing this gender inequity with one of my professors, who said that the faculty truly wanted to accept more women into the program, but just didn’t receive nearly as many applications. Although this disparity in application numbers made sense – after all, I almost didn’t apply myself – this answer didn’t satisfy me. If this was really the case and if young women were being indirectly discouraged from entering the field, then why was no one doing anything about it?

Regardless of the gender imbalance among the students in my program at Temple, I was lucky enough to be in a school that has a extremely kind and supportive environment. I always felt encouraged by my professors and peers to pursue my true artistic vision, and the unease of my high school years felt more and more distant as I became more self-assured as a composer. It felt so natural to be studying composition at a university that it became easy to forget that I had almost not even applied in the first place. It was only after becoming an adjunct professor there and talking with some incoming freshman composers that I remembered how isolating it felt to be a young composer with no knowledge of female role models in the field. I resolved to do something about it for the next generation, to show young women that their music is valued. In the spring of 2017, I came up with the idea for the Young Women Composers Camp, a two-week music composition program for young women in high school.

As soon as I thought of the idea for the camp, I went to see David Brown, the Dean of the Boyer college, to ask if he thought Temple would be interested in hosting it, and if it would be feasible to run the following summer. He was immediately on board, and gave me the contact information of everyone who I would need to get in touch with to get the ball rolling. I talked to Cynthia Folio, the current chair of the music studies department, and Julia Alford, the music studies assistant, to ask if they would like to take on the respective pivotal roles of Faculty and Administrative Directors. They were both interested, and together, we began contacting the necessary personnel in the Temple network that would help our camp run smoothly, as well as getting in touch with instructors, contacting guest artists and ensembles, applying for funding, and creating an advertising plan. I scheduled countless meetings with prominent music education activists and directors in Philadelphia to ask them for their advice, and I got a lot of it. I applied for numerous grants, and was awarded funding from a few, most notably a faculty grant from Temple for $10,500. I got in touch with Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli, who had previously worked with Opera Philadelphia and was recently commissioned by the Met, to ask if she would be willing to visit our camp as our guest composer; she was so excited about our program that she offered to come down for the day for a greatly reduced fee.

During this time that we were planning our first camp, there were so many moments along the way where the planning process could have been permanently derailed. Many administrators that I talked to were doubtful that the camp could be organized in such a short amount of time, or urged me to lower my expectations for what the camp could become. There was also an enormous amount of bureaucratic red tape to sort through at every stage of the planning process, which could feel incredibly overwhelming at times, especially since I was also working two other jobs and applying to grad schools at that time. But we got through it all by continuing to ask: what can we do to make this happen? And after a year and a half of planning, we arrived at the first day of camp on July 9th, 2018.

We hosted a total of 18 girls between the ages of 14–19; half of the girls were commuters, and half of them came from all over the country, from as far away as Oregon and South Dakota. (These students stayed in the freshman dorms.) During the two-week program, students took classes in composition seminar, theory, notation, electronic music, jazz improvisation, song writing, publishing and copyright, concert planning, and orchestration. Students also received private composition lessons. All of the girls participated in chorale, where they sang works by female composers throughout history and gained some performing experience. Aside from hosting Missy Mazzoli for a day, we also visited the Sō Percussion Summer Institute at Princeton University to learn about writing for percussion instruments, and to attend a composition workshop led by well- known composers Sarah Kirkland Snider and Caroline Shaw. Tuition was subsided from $700 to $350 per student, mainly thanks the grant we received from Temple, which allowed the camp to be accessible to families of varying income levels. We provided our students with anonymous evaluations several times during the camp, all of which were incredibly positive: 100% of our students stated that they would like to return next year.

There were so many incredible moments during the camp, but one day stands out among the rest; the final concert, when each student saw their new composition for string quartet receive its world premiere. Several students wrote their very first piece during our program, and being able to witness the palpable vulnerability and pure joy in their faces while they were hearing their pieces played for the first time was just beyond words. In that moment, every one of those emails and meetings and phone calls and stress headaches during the planning process was worth it, just to hear the absolutely beautiful and innovative music that these girls wrote during the program.

The mission of our program is to amplify the voices of young women, to allow them access to a high level of musical training, and to close the gender gap in the music composition field and create a more equitable music sector. I want young women to know that their music is valued, and that there are women out there who are succeeding as composers and changing what “classical music” can sound like. I also want to be clear that the mission of the camp is not to diminish the importance of works by male composers like Beethoven, Mozart, or Bach, nor is it to discourage young men from composing or pursuing a composition career. We do not exist to de-value the works of men – we exist to help to diversify a field that has been traditionally male-dominated.

There are endless statistics that help to illustrate how truly pervasive and extreme this gender disparity is. According to a 2016 study by the Baltimore Symphony that surveyed the top orchestras in the country, pieces by women composers account for only 1.3% of the repertoire performed that season. Even among just pieces written by living composers, female composers are still very much in the minority, representing just 10.3% of pieces played. We want to help change these statistics by encouraging young women to contribute their music to the world, and calling for change on a national scale.

Our application for 2019 was released on January 15th, and we have several exciting new additions to our program. We will host guest composers Jennifer Higdon and Andrea Clearfield, guest instructor Elainie Lillios, and performers Yumi Kendall (assistant cello, Philadelphia Orchestra), Erica Peel (piccolo, Philadelphia Orchesta), Hanchien Lee (pianist, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society), and the electro-acoustic SPLICE Ensemble. We have introduced a Tech Track for students who are interested in electronic music, who will study with Elainie and write a new composition for the SPLICE ensemble. We will also visit the Sō Percussion Summer Institute for the second year in a row, and our students will participate in the performance of a large-scale work. I am so excited to meet another generation of bright young female composers, and can’t wait to hear the music that they produce at our camp.

Moving forward, I hope that the Young Women Composers Camp brings awareness to the real and prevalent gender imbalance in the composition world, and that it continues to elevate the musicianship of young female composers from across the nation. We need to let young women know that we are listening.

Learn more at: https://www.youngwomencomposers.org/home/


American Youth Symphony